Aug 4, 2011

The Discovery Files: Wing Talkers

When African Grey parrots talk, do they mimic sounds or consciously understand their speech? Irene Pepperberg, a comparative psychologist at both Brandeis and Harvard universities believes African Greys actually know what they're talking about.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Grey Area (Sound effect: parrot squawk)

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Since 1977 when she bought an African grey parrot named Alex at a pet store, Dr. Irene Pepperberg has been investigating the premise that with the right training, these creatures can do a lot more than just 'parrot' back words and phrases. She believes that they can understand concepts and actually communicate. Before her prize student Alex died of natural causes in 2007, he had mastered the meanings of over 100 English words and he knew his colors and shapes.

(Sound effect: sound byte)

In addition to the verbal exercises and shape recognition, she's had the parrots correctly respond to tests involving color, material, number concepts, similarity, difference and absence. Pepperberg is always careful not to tip off the birds with subtle clues demonstrating that it's not simply rote learning.

These training techniques may reach far beyond our fine-feathered friends to human communication. Some of the methods are being tested to help autistic children better communicate.

Although I couldn't get to interview any of the parrots directly about Dr. Pepperberg (Sound effect: parrot audio: "I'm sorry."), I'm sure they speak highly of her.

The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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